Business & Economy

Economic woes darken holiday mood in Cuba

By Juan Carlos Espinosa

Havana, Dec 30 (EFE).- Maria Antonia, 70, joined the line outside a grocery store in the Cuban capital at 5:00 am Friday to do the shopping for the traditional New Year’s Eve feast.

“God and the family are what is most important,” she tells EFE without a hint of exasperation after waiting more than five hours, though complaints were heard from others in the line.

The Covid-19 pandemic shut down the tourism sector, which has become a vital source of hard currency for Communist Cuba, and exacerbated existing stresses to produce a situation reminiscent of the “special period” in the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union put an end to subsidies from Moscow.

Cubans now contend with worse-than-usual shortages of basic goods, raging inflation and rising inequality linked to the de-facto partial dollarization of the economy.

In another line, Regla Maria, 60, regales 30-year-old Imaray with tales of better times when “even eggs” could be had for the New Year’s Eve meal, provoking the younger woman to laugh incredulously.

“Next year will be better, you need to have faith,” Regla says.

While some try to put the best face on the situation, others seize on the long wait to give vent to their frustrations.

“In this entire circuit, there are five shops and there was once chicken. Now, this line is for a packet of detergent,” Gladys says outside a store at the other end of the street.

Visible in the distance is a line outside one of the MLC hard-currency shops the Cuban government opened in 2019 as the island was squeezed by then-President Donald Trump’s tightening of the economic embargo imposed in 1962 by the United States.

Among the people waiting is Odalys, 62, who emigrated to Spain in 2006 and is visiting friends and family for the holidays.

“I can buy because I have my Spanish (debit) card,” she shares with EFE. “We already have everything (for New Year’s Eve), but I come for cider and some bottles of soda.”

Unlike the peso shops, the hard-currency store has an ample supply of meat and some got here at the crack of dawn to secure a loin of pork or whole chicken.

“If you can’t buy something with the ration book or you use it up, this is the only option. But listen, not all of us can buy in these places,” says a 40-something man who declines to give his name.

The MLCs only accept international credit/debit cards or cash in hard currency, which are unattainable for the majority of Cubans.

Economy Minister Alejandro Gil has spoken out more than once in defense of the MLCs. “Though many don’t see it this way, it is a social justice measure,” he said at the start of 2022. EFE jce/dr

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